I believe in the importance of doing the right thing. When I was young my father shared a story about his childhood that struck me deeply. My father grew up on Ventnor Beach in New Jersey during the Great Depression. One morning he and his father went fishing. As one of them went to cast, their line struck and broke one of the lights along the pier. Without saying a word, my grandfather packed up their fishing gear, grabbed my father’s hand and walked to the town hall. He told the clerk about the broken light and gave him money to cover the cost of replacing it. My grandfather had very little money to spare, but this wasn’t an issue of cost. It was simply a matter of taking responsibility for one’s actions—of doing the right thing.
I’m a high school teacher and in my sociology class we cover a unit on The Holocaust. During this unit we examine the various roles people played and the choices they made. We generally spend the most time examining the role of the bystander. Should the many individuals who witnessed these events have taken some action in defense of the victims—people who were often their neighbors, co-workers, or even family friends? What choices did they have? Can we expect people to risk their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, to fight through the enormous forces of fear and uncertainty, in order to help others? This role is particularly important for us to examine because it is here where we can most clearly see ourselves. It is impossible not to wonder; what would we have done? And hopefully it leads us to ask; what are we bystanders of in our own lives? These are not easy questions to grapple with, and the goal of examining these questions is not to stand in judgment of others, but to look closely at what it means if we don’t expect ourselves and others do the right thing, even, and perhaps especially, during the most difficult of times. The answer to these questions was summed up powerfully by one of my students who asked; “If we don’t hold people responsible for their actions, if we don’t expect them to do what is right, how can we ever hope to prevent another Holocaust from happening? How can we expect to live in a better world?”
Irena Sendler was example of one those amazing individuals who rose above the fear and uncertainty that took hold during the Nazi regime. Ms. Sendler was a Polish Catholic social worker who rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. Her story is an extraordinary example of the power and importance of doing the right thing. Her courage in the face of such fierce oppression seems superhuman, but her actions weren’t superhuman, they were deeply human—and they show us that we all have the capacity to be our best selves—to do what is right. Whether it is an act as simple as paying for a broken light or as profound as saving the lives of thousands of innocent children, I believe we can make this a better world by taking responsibility for our actions and doing what we know is right.
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